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Speedway in the City
Chris Ash

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Graham Warren of Birmingham putting his bike through its paces in a 1952 meeting

Like so many other popular past times of yesteryear motorcycle speedway is now a minority sport. It struggles like so many other sports today to attract customers through their turnstiles. The number of tracks is dwindling together with the number of supporters. Loyal Brummies travel to Monmore Green, Wolverhampton or Brandon, Coventry to watch their favourite sport.
But in its heyday speedway's popularity was second only to football, and a close second too! Packed crowds stood on terraces up and down the country and the Midlands was no exception. The fever of a local derby always drew many thousands to watch matches between teams such as Cradley Heath, Wolverhampton, Coventry, Leicester, Tamworth and of course Birmingham.
British motorcycle speedway began its life back in 1923 in Australia. It took the country by storm. High powered lightweight motorcycles on the confines of a dirt oval was the simple recipe and it worked. It wasn't long before it had swept its way back across the globe to Britain, where the first official meeting took place at the Kings Oak Hotel in Epping Forest on 19th February 1928. 30,000 fans saw the event on a track laid down on an old athletics field behind the hotel.
And five months later Birmingham held its first speedway meeting on the 12th of July at the Alexander stadium, Perry Barr. Some seven thousand fans turned up to watch the meeting on a sunny summers evening with music relayed from a gramophone in the enclosure to speakers on the centre green. Coloured cuffs were used to identify the riders to the crowd who for the most part seemed somewhat bewildered by the spectacle. Not even the colourful American "Sprouts" Elder's demonstration of broadsliding captured their imagination. Instead of wearing a 'pudding basin' helmet, goggles and leathers, Sprouts wore just a scarlet jersey and leather helmet but his new style of riding caused large amounts of dust which somewhat obscured his antics. In the main events Harry Taft took both 350cc and 500cc final wins beating Charlie Bowers by quite a margin in both races. However Bowers took the top prize by winning the Sunbac Golden Helmet with Taft finishing in second place due to mechanical problems. The stadium continued to hold open meetings throughout the 1928 season but then closed to speedway until 1946.
Meanwhile three other stadia were offering open meetings during 1928-30. At BSA, the Birmingham Motorcycle Club established a training track but it held two official meetings during August 1928.
And situated across the road from the Alexander Stadium, Perry Barr Stadium opened its doors to Speedway in April 1929. The success of that year led the promoters to enter a team into the Southern League for 1930 but resigned after only one meeting due to a dispute with the stadium owners over the number of greyhound meetings that would be held at the track. As a result open meetings only were held at the track for the remainder of the year.
Perhaps the biggest star in Birmingham during these early days was the young Jack Parker. The local rider rode many of the open meetings taking the lions share of victories at most of the fixtures he contested. He worked closely with BSA and was about to begin a glorious career that lasted until the mid 1950s riding for teams such as Harringay, Belle Vue and Coventry.

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Back Row-Left to Right- Doug Davies, Harry Bastaple, Graham Warren & Ron Mountford
Front Row- Eric Boothroyd, Alan Hunt (Captain) & Jim Tolley

The third venue was on the south side of the city at Hall Green Greyhound stadium. The track opened in 1928 and ran both open meetings and raced in the Southern League during the 1929 and 1930 season. The loss of their grandstand to fire in 1930 was a bitter blow to the promoters - a carelessly discarded cigarette end was believed to be the cause. Racing finished at the track until 1934 when they re-commenced league racing but it ended abruptly at the end of the season due to a poor year financially for the club. For the 1937/38 season Hall Green became known as the Birmingham Bulldogs and a new rider by the name of Phil 'Tiger' Hart emerged onto the scene. He had seen some success riding in Australia where he had emigrated to and now he was back to try his hand at British speedway racing and showed what a success he was in the colours of the Bulldogs.

After the war it was the Alexander Stadium that re-started a speedway programme for the 1946 season. Birmingham entered the Northern League for that year but the club suffered two fatalities when two of their riders - Hugh Watkinson and Canadian Charlie Appleby died in separate incidents on track. Tiger Hart was also back for more action and it wasn't long before he had made captain of the Brummies squad. For the 1947 season Birmingham moved into the renamed National League Division 2 where they raced for the next two years. There were now three divisions in the booming sport. Unfortunately for 'Tiger' his success was cut short when he was forced into retirement due to an ankle injury and then a broken leg ending his career. By 1948 the Brummies were desperately looking for a new star to partner their other top rider Stan Dell. The promoter Les Marshall trialled a young Aussie by the name of Graham Warren for his 3rd Division Cradley Heath side. A paid maxium and track record in his one and only outing for Cradley Heath caught Marshall's eye and 'the blonde bombshell', as he was known, was packed off to 2nd Division Birmingham where he quickly became a sensation. The Aussie always scored well, and helped the team to some notable success during 1948 such as winning the Division 2 Knockout Cup and helped the team to finish second and gain promotion to National League Division 1 for 1949. And in only his first season in the top flight Warren achieved the second highest scoring average edged out by Jack Parker.

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Guy Allott was drafted in for the 1957 season, from Odsal

The next few seasons for Brummies were a struggle as the team try to acquit itself to top flight racing and by 1951 promoter Les Marshall sold his interest in Cradley Heath Speedway. He bought with him Eric Boothroyd and Alan Hunt which was just the lift the side needed to support the out of sorts Warren who had fractured his skull earlier in the season whilst racing in New Zealand. Hunt was already an established star at Cradley. A determined gritty rider, he was the lift the Brummies needed to take them to second place in the Division 1 Championship for 1952.
The 1950s were not a good time for speedway, tracks were closing everywhere, and Birmingham became no exception when the promoter, Les Marshall pulled the plug at the end of July 1957 with Bradford using their remaining fixtures. The reasons for closing were dwindling spectators mixed with an series of events that had happened in early 1957 in what became known as the 'South African Affair'. A group of riders led by Alan Hunt including some other Birmingham riders were touring the country during the close season. Hunt tragically died whilst racing and the rest of his team were suspended in England and fined following a series of hearings because they had raced on unlicensed tracks.
A temporary revival occurred in 1960 when the Alexander stadium was used for a series of open meetings promoted by Phil Hart and Doug Ellis. But it wasn't until the 1970s that Joe Thurley accidentally contacted Perry Barr stadium instead of the old Alexander stadium (today known as Perry Barr Greyhound Stadium) situated opposite and so bought British League Division 2 racing to Perry Barr for the 1971 season. The stadium was hurriedly prepared, indeed the supporters couldn't stand on the home straight at the opening meeting due to work being completed on the grandstand. The squad was initially formed out of the Doncaster outfit, which included the influential George Major. Major was already an established campaigner and he was joined a year later by the young Arthur Browning. Browning burst onto the scene and the two became the lynch pin of the Birmingham team throughout the early 1970s. In 1973 the return of a famous speedway name came to the club. John Hart son of Phil Hart saw a dramatic improvement in his averages and enjoyed three great seasons with the club before the end of his career. Within three years Birmingham began to find success and the years 1974-1975 were a dominant period in the clubs history. After winning the 1974 championship and the Knock Out Cup and with Phil Herne topping the Division 2 rider standings the Brummies were on the crest of a wave. Despite having a near nine point average George Major wasn't even a consistent heat leader such was the strength in depth of the squad. The team followed this up with a win in the 1975 Division 2 Championship.

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Doug Davies came to the club from South Africa in 1954. By 1955 he was one of the teams star riders

New challenges were now sought and so the move up to the Division 1 (British League) for the 1976 season was the obvious move. The next few seasons were a real struggle for team and they never quite found the success enjoyed in previous years. In 1980 Dan McCormick took over the Brummies promotion from Joe Thurley and by 1981 Dan had managed to acquire the talented Hans Nielson from Wolves. Nielson proved to be one of the Brummies last great stars and was the rock in the side from 1981 until the end of 1983 when the stadium was sold and demolished to make way for a new shopping development now known as One Stop Shopping Centre. The 10th October 1983 saw Birmingham loose to Cradley Heath 23-55 in a final challenge match at the track.
Hope was not lost however as the promoters had secured a move to a new venue at Birmingham Wheels in Bordesley Green during 1984. National League Racing was held during 1985 and 1986 but the curtain closed on speedway in Birmingham in September of that year.
Its been 17 years since Speedway last ran in Birmingham, the longest break the city has had from the sport since its inception in 1928. And yet the hope amongst fans never wanes that the Brummies will once again find a new home.
Chris Ash
The author is currently writing a book on the history of Birmingham Speedway and would welcome any materials or memories that readers might have of the club